'If they ask you to pause, you pause': Reconsider Canada Day, leaders urge in shadow of country's atrocious Indigenous record

·6 min read
Small orange flags places in grass in memory of the thousands of Indigenous children that died in Canada's residential school system. Close view. (madsci via Getty Images)

There is a movement stirring across the country, encouraging Canadians to rethink the meaning of Canada Day and how we celebrate it.

As remains continue to be discovered near former residential schools, many people, organizations and even political leaders are questioning how we can celebrate a country that has historically treated its Indigenous population so atrociously.

Assiniboine Park in Winnipeg plans to cut out the fireworks and instead mark July 1 with Indigenous blessings and activities. Sol Mamakwa, an Ontario MPP, posted a video to his social media urging Canadians to reconsider how they spend their Canada Day.

An ice cream shop in Ottawa posted to Twitter, stating they would not “celebrate the ongoing colonization, oppression and genocide of the Indigenous Peoples of this land.”

While many people commit to wearing red and white clothing to show their Canadian pride on July 1, in recent years there’s been a push instead to wear orange shirts. Orange shirts are associated with the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, a statutory holiday that recognizes the legacy of the residential school system in Canada.

In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission described the country’s residential school system as “cultural genocide.”

The residential school system was in place for over 100 years, starting from 1894 to the closing of the last institution in 1997. It forcibly removes Indigenous children from their families, in order to attend boarding schools that intended to strip them of their culture and religion. Children were frequently abused, assaulted and even perished. In 2021, countless graves of children on the grounds of former residential schools were uncovered, casting a small glimpse of the injustice and trauma faced by the community until this day.

Shaneeka Forrester is the Indigenous relations coordinator for UPlift Black, a Barrie-based social impact agency. She says many Indigenous Peoples across the country have been waiting for their piece of Canada Day to be included, acknowledged or represented in celebrations that are “happening on the country that was founded on the genocide of their people.”

Forrester wants people to spend Canada Day considering the history of the country and how to be an ally.

“Everyone wants to celebrate Canada but there’s such a large dismissal of the population that was attempted to be eradicated so that this country could prosper and be celebrated,” she tells Yahoo Canada News.

She says part of reconciliation, moving forward and being an ally goes beyond land acknowledgements, wearing an orange shirt or other symbolic gestures - it needs to be action based.

When non-Indigenous people are having their barbecues and celebrating Canada, what I would like to see is more Indigenous consideration, awareness and knowledge.Shaneeka Forrester, Indigenous Relations Coordinator for UPlift Black

That includes taking time to understand issues like the water crisis that’s happening in some Indigenous communities, treaties and land disputes and why Canada has marginalized Indigenous people for so long.

“Canada is the only country in the developing world that still has race-based federal legislation,” Forrester says. “(It’s important that Canadians are) really understanding what these things mean and why these things exist today and really take time to honour Indigenous people.”

She adds that providing a safe environment for Indigenous people to gather is also important on Canada Day.

If you have Indigenous community around you, listen to them and do what they say in regards to Canada Day. If they ask you to pause, you pause. You may not understand why they’re asking you to do those things, but being able to respect that decision is really important moving forward.Shaneeka Forrester, Indigenous Relations Coordinator for UPlift Black